Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Unsolicited Advice for USOC After Nassar

The events today in a Michigan court room were remarkable, as sexual predator Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to an additional 175 years in prison. In the aftermath of the sentencing the US Olympic Committee, which has oversight responsibilities of USA Gymnastics under us law (the so-called Ted Stevens Act of 1978), released a letter to athletes.

In the letter USOC says the following:
The USOC has decided to launch an investigation by an independent third party to examine how an abuse of this proportion could have gone undetected for so long. We need to know when complaints were brought forward and to who. This investigation will include both USAG and the USOC, and we believe USAG will cooperate fully. We will make the results public.
Nobody asked me, but here is some independent advice to USOC.

1. How USOC handles this investigation is incredibly important, for making things better, for its reputation and for its legitimacy in the eyes of athletes.

USOC gets one shot at this and one shot only. The way forward is a minefield with lots of potential for missteps. Here are some recommendations based on my observations of many, many investigations by sports organizations.

2. The choice of "independent third party" is absolutely essential.

No details are provided, but it would seem obvious that absolutely no one from the Olympic "family" should be involved in the investigation. No one. Independent must mean independent. USOC should have no role in selecting the members of the investigative team. USOC should pay the full cost.

One suggestion is to follow the model of the Mitchell Report (full name: "Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball") which was called for and paid for by Major League Baseball.

George Mitchell recently explained how it came together in a way that was truly independent:
[MLB commissioner] Bud Selig deserves great credit for his courage. He was the only commissioner of a professional sport in the United States who had the courage to authorize a completely independent investigation. I made it clear to him in our first conversation that I would do this only if I had his commitment to my full and total independence. He unhesitatingly gave it, and he kept his promise. That's to his great credit.
It also worked because, well, George Mitchell is George Mitchell. (I had the pleasure of spending a day with him a few years ago when I was the "George Mitchell lecturer" at the University of Maine. He is the real deal.)

Who might USOC turn to? Some suggestions:

Condoleeza Rice is at the top of my list. She is a diplomat, knows sports and is above reproach. If not her, then someone of similar stature (of which there are very few). George Mitchell is on the list also.

Alternatively, USOC could turn to Congress for help, for instance by making an appeal to the two senators from Colorado (where USOC is headquartered), one a Republican and one a Democrat. Congress has ultimate oversight responsibilities for USOC and could empanel and support the work of an investigation (e.g., via hearings). The risk of course is that involving Congress could lead the issue to become politicized in today's hyper-partisan environment. Another risk is that Congress is just too dysfunctional to take it on .

Of course, Congressional action might preempt USOC anyway (in which case it would be in USOC's interests to just get out ahead). Senator Jean Shaheen (D-NH) has already suggested such, and the train may be leaving the station.

Either way, I'd recommend Condoleeza Rice, regardless who empanels the committee.

3. The investigation must be about more than who knew what, when.

Yest, that should be part of it, of course. But an equally important question is who didn't know what, when. If USAG or USOC officials did not know about the years of abuse, then why didn't they? What went wrong? Clearly, both organizations should have known a long time ago and stopped it.

A limitation to such an investigation is that absent a Congressional role, there will be no subpoena power or ability to compel evidence from witnesses. Mitchell had this problem in his steroid investigations, but his efforts were was helped along by a few athletes who were willing to speak and a parallel federal investigation.

If USOC has not already acted to secure official communications of (all) USAG and (relevant) USOC staff, such as emails, phone messages etc. then it is already too late. USOC needs to be acting as if a major investigation is already underway, and not wait until it is.

4. Finally, USOC should go ahead and decertify USAG. 

In its letter today USOC said:
We have strongly considered decertifying USAG as a National Governing Body. But USA Gymnastics includes clubs and athletes who had no hand in this and who need to be supported. We believe it would hurt more than help the athletes and their sport. But we will pursue decertification if USA Gymnastics does not fully embrace the necessary changes in their governance structure along with other mandated changes under review right now.
This is weak.

Given the scope of the abuse, USAG needs to be rebuilt from the ground up in the aftermath of an independent investigation. Decertification would mean, in effect, putting USAG into a form of receivership and managed by USOC. Yes, this would be challenging and take a lot of effort.  However, it could be done in a manner that limits impacts on athletes and the sport.

Crucially, it would be the right thing to do, and help to restore credibility in the sport and the institutions that govern it. It would send a signal that fixing things is ultimately more important than sport victories. If there is some disruption involved in making things right, then that is a price worth paying.

USOC can be sure that people like me -- well outside their "family," and people like Aly Raisman -- who has called for such an investigation as someone well inside the Olympic "family," will be paying close attention to how this independent investigation proceeds. There won't be a lot of generosity towards USOC if they botch this.

What they do next really matters. We are all watching.
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